239. Backchannel Message From the Ambassador to Vietnam (Bunker) to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1

313. Subject: Thieu’s Present Attitude toward Negotiations. Refs: A) WHS 2294; B) Saigon 0300; C) Saigon 0308.2

My assessment of Thieu’s present attitude concerning negotiations and the draft agreement does not differ in any material sense from the views I expressed in my two most recent messages of December 18 and 23 (refs B and C). These messages might be reviewed as background.
Thieu has continued his efforts to develop support for his position concentrating largely on the issue of NVA troops remaining in South Viet-Nam. The emphasis, however, has been more on the juridical principle involved rather than the actual fact of these troops being in South Viet-Nam. I think Thieu realizes the difficulty of securing an actual withdrawal or even of identifying NVA troops as such. He is genuinely concerned with the principle involved, i.e., that the agreement should recognize either directly or by implication their right to be in South Viet-Nam. He has accepted somewhat reluctantly by now, I believe, the fact that the GVN has the ability to deal with the NVA forces.
Thieu has continued his efforts to develop support for his position within the country and is now turning his attention toward means by which he hopes to influence public and Congressional opinion in the United States. The 5,000 military students released from school to carry on proselytizing efforts in the provinces are continuing their efforts and we have reports that they have been generally effective. Within the last few days, Thieu has called in Archbishop Binh and the Bishop of Danang to whom he has expounded at length his position on the draft agreement. He has repeated that whether to sign or not to sign the agreement in its present form is only a choice between sudden or [Page 876] lingering death for which he cannot take responsibility. He has urged on them the importance of getting the message to Catholics in the United States and abroad. He has asked the Bishop of Long Xuyen to permit Father Thanh Hung, presently in the United States, to return to Saigon to be briefed on the GVN position and return to carry the message to American Catholics. Thieu is also planning to have a number of Senators and Deputies proceed to the United States in their individual capacities, not as an official delegation, to present the GVN position to members of the Senate and House with whom they are acquainted. He has also asked former Foreign Minister Dr. Tran Van Do and former Ambassador Bui Diem to proceed to the United States in order to present the GVN case to their numerous acquaintances there. In recent conversations I have had with both they have expressed understanding of the realities of the situation in the United States as it affects Viet-Nam and I think that they can be counted on to give Thieu a realistic report of what they discover during their visit.
I think that all these moves fit into Thieu’s strategy of playing for time. He prides himself on the fact that his maneuvering has secured him additional time and has made good use of it. The GVN is certainly considerably stronger today than it was at the end of October. (Conversely the enemy is considerably weaker and this raises the question whether they are at this time ready for a ceasefire; they have far fewer “leopard spots” from which to operate than they had in October.)
Thieu will go on playing this game as long as we let him. He will hope that he will gradually gain support for his position abroad and especially to have some effect on opinion in the United States and in the Congress. He will hope that Hanoi may play into his hands by making unreasonable demands, e.g., by insisting on a control commission so emasculated that it will be obviously ineffectual and that negotiations thus might be stymied for another period.

On the other hand, Thieu is aware of the fact that in other directions time is running out:

  • —He is sensitive to the fact that he has been made to appear an obstacle to peace. His sensitivity to this is evident in his complaint to his listeners that he has been made to appear as an obstacle to peace whereas the determination of Hanoi to dominate all of Viet-Nam is the real obstacle.
  • —That Congress will meet on January 3. He is apprehensive concerning its mood, that if he appears to be the obstacle to peace Congress could cut off funds for his support.
  • —He has issued instructions to avoid public confrontation with the U.S., to “speak softly and gently”, hoping that if he can delay matters long enough opinion may gradually shift in his favor.

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Thus he will continue to play out as long as he can what he considers, so far at least, to have been a winning game.

Thieu is highly intelligent, however, and he knows that at some time he will face the moment of truth. Thus he has continued to make preparations for a cease-fire. In preparation for a political confrontation with the NLF, he has speeded up the organization of the Democracy Party.3 He has issued a decree law on political parties which will have the effect of reducing the number of parties to three or four. These are efforts designed to unite the nationalists into a more cohesive front in preparation for a forthcoming political contest. He has made moves to assure that the responsibility for his decision—to sign or not to sign—will be shared by others. Hence his December 12 address to the National Assembly and his many consultations with the military and other influential elements. In his recent talk with Archbishop Binh, he said that if forced to a decision he would ask the National Assembly and the Army if they will permit him to sign and asked rhetorically if the church will permit him to sign.
I think that as a matter of actual fact the one stumbling block as far as Thieu is concerned is the juridical right of NVA forces to remain in South Viet-Nam. But as I have said before (refs B and C), I think that Thieu will opt for survival. As I mentioned in ref B, I do not believe the Army will let him put the country in a position in which American aid is cut off and would insist on his resignation should he contemplate such action. There is also a body of influential opinion which takes the same view. Thieu might then resort to one of the alternatives for acquiescing in the agreement mentioned in ref B, paragraph 6.
In the meantime, I think we should look for any additional ways which can contribute to helping Thieu to extricate himself from the position he has gotten into. As one move, on December 28, General Weyand and I had a long talk with him concerning the relative strengths of GVN and NVA forces. The balance came out heavily on the side of RVNAF; hopefully this will have some influence with Thieu in estimating his ability to handle the NVA. Another point I think would be worth pursuing is whether we can work out some understanding with the Soviets and Chinese on mutual reduction of aid to both sides. Thieu raised this point with Al Haig at our last meeting.4
In conclusion, my view is that Thieu will follow the course which will assure continued U.S. support. But he will continue to procrastinate, temporize and play for time until he is finally brought up against the moment of decision. Until the moment we are ready to say [Page 878] we are definitely going to sign the agreement, with or without him, he will hold off. My view is that we had a reasonable agreement in October and had we forced the issue then, I think Thieu would have had to sign. The President, however, has been patient, lenient and wise in giving Thieu every opportunity to present his case and in receiving his emissary. You have made every effort to get Thieu’s views accepted in Paris. While the President’s resumption of the bombing created a certain euphoria here, a tendency to say “we were right all along, you have learned how tricky the Communists are”, it should also provide confirmation of the President’s assurance of assistance in a prompt and strong intervention should the other side violate the cease-fire. The GVN is in a considerably stronger position now vis-à-vis the other side than it was in October. As I have said in previous messages, I think we have fulfilled our responsibility to Thieu and Viet-Nam fully and completely. If we can get a reasonable settlement in Paris, I have no doubt that we should move ahead. I think then, but only then, Thieu will decide to go with us.
Warm regards.
  1. Source: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box TS 45, Geopolitical File, Vietnam, Cables, Dec. 1972–Apr. 1975. Top Secret; Operational Immediate; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only.
  2. For backchannel message WHS 2294, see footnote 2, Document 235. Backchannel messages 300 and 308 are Documents 191 and 220.
  3. Thieu’s political party.
  4. See Document 206.